FREE BIRD T.V.: Episode 7 (On the Banks of the Ganges)

Considered India’s holiest Hindu site, the Ganges River provides water for over 420 million people. They cook, bathe, pray, and wash away their sins with it, thousands wading into its slow-moving current from the ghats of Varanasi each dawn. (Never mind the 200 million litres of sewage dumped there every day.)

The Ganga, as it’s known in Hindi, is sacred. So sacred that Hindus believe the scattering of their cremated ashes into the river will grant them moksha – liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. The daily cremation count at the Varanasi burning ghats hovers around 300, with an endless cloud of smoke rising above the woodstacks.

We took two boat rides on the Ganges–one in the early morning and one after dark. Despite spotting the floating carcasses of a cow, a pig, and two dogs, we were captivated watching the men, women, pilgrims, children, and sadhus relish in the daily rituals practiced on these banks for thousands of years.

Seeing Varanasi

Bodies burning on beds of fire lit at the edge of the Ganga, people bathing drinking praying washing, beating dirt from their clothes on wet stones, drying the clothes on sun-hot stairs, and women with newly-shaved heads and naked arms and anxious eyes shouting into the golden doors of shrines guarded by unsmiling uniformed men holding long guns in the heat and cows, cows in every sliver-thin alley, swallowing plastic bags and banana peels, and a man with fingerless stumps on the ends of two arms leaning on the wall, next to a silk seller sipping chai in a pillow-floored shop unravelling scarves, and is that a dead monkey sprawled sideways on the street? (String of holy flowers strung around its neck?)  Packs of men carry bodies cloaked in orange cloth (always orange) on wooden stretchers, bodies of their mother or brother or sister or son, lifting them high above the rickshaws and cigarettes, the spicy fried potato stalls and honking motorcycles, the tourists and goats and barefoot fly-swarmed kids, above the constant throb to the river where bells are ringing on the ghats, and pilgrims are singing and candles glow like rubies on the water and a hundred rowboats are moored and the Brahmin priests are spinning circles of fire, the massage men and the boys selling stamps, and the holy bearded man with red holy powder is smiling, rubbing dye into your damp forehead, incense smoke blooming up into the night heat as silver bowls shake along a staircase, their tin skins begging for rupees to fall for the old and the hungry and the waiting.

*Click on an image to view gallery in full-size

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